As a growing body of research suggests, however, test scores don’t truly measure school quality. And, if that is the case, chances are the greatest threat to urban schools isn’t a flaw in the design or execution of urban education. Instead, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy—one in which privileged families presume city schools to be failing and, in taking flight from them, bring about a real decline.
To be sure, urban students don’t post achievement scores equal to their suburban peers. But discrepancies in test scores indicate more about families and neighborhoods than they do about the work being done in schools. One notable study, for instance, found that the influence of family and neighborhood factors accounts for roughly 60 percent of the variance in student test scores; teachers, by contrast, account for only about 10 percent.
Consider the suburbs. Roughly two-thirds of suburban kids are white, and the vast majority do not live in poverty. They are also more likely than their urban counterparts to have parents with college degrees. Given this confluence of variables, suburban students tend to enter school with the early literacy and numeracy skills necessary to learn the prescribed curriculum. Equally important, it means that suburban students are likely to have absorbed school-ready behaviors and attitudes from role models at home and in the community. Children in these environments, in short, don’t need to be explicitly taught the value of school. They hear positive school messages all the time and quickly develop the sense that doing well in school matters. When it comes time to take tests, such students tend to score quite well, and their schools tend to get the credit.
City schools, by contrast, serve a very different mix of young people. Roughly two-thirds of urban students are nonwhite, and in the 20 largest school districts, that figure is 80 percent on average. As research indicates, these students are more likely to absorb negative stereotypes about their own abilities—something that is particularly true when they are in segregated schools. Urban schools also serve an increasing majority of young people from persistently disadvantaged households. Such students are likely to be surrounded by adults with low levels of educational attainment and limited professional prospects—a social context that can have a powerful impact on how students approach school and envision their futures. Additionally, research reveals that compared to their more-affluent peers, poor children are read to less frequently and exposed to less complex language at home, inhibiting the early development of their cognitive skills. Not surprisingly, their scores tend to be lower.
Believing that they are fleeing bad schools, or securing spots in good ones, middle-class parents have inadvertently exacerbated segregation. And that has had a very real impact on urban schools. Demographically integrated schools have been shown to foster a culture of success that can change a child’s sense of academic self-efficacy and plans for the future. This, in part, is due to the influence of a more varied group of peers in such schools. But it is also a result of the fact that integrated schools end up being organized and operated differently than segregated ones—focused less on compliance and discipline, and more on development and achievement. Additionally, in diverse schools with smaller concentrations of high-poverty students, educators can devote extra attention to their neediest pupils—a practice that appears to facilitate the narrowing or closing of learning gaps. Finally, integrated schools can help young people develop the comfort and competence to live and work in a wide variety of settings—opening up their worlds in new ways.